One of the storylines to track as the NHL inches closer to this summer’s expansion draft is what choices each team will make in goal. Due to their current contract situation, the Sabres are among the teams that have work to do in that department.
Unlike with forwards or defensemen, each team has a very simple set of rules to follow. You can protect one non-exempt goaltender and each team must expose at least one goaltender who is under contract for the 2017-18 season. Restricted free agents can be exposed so long as they have been tendered by their current club. It’s very straightforward and there’s little wiggle room when it comes to making a choice.
All three of Buffalo’s goaltenders are currently on expiring contracts and none have been extended at this time. Anders Nilsson is really the only one who is a threat to leave as a free agent as both Linus Ullmark and Robin Lehner are restricted free agents. That means Lehner and Ullmark will almost certainly receive their qualifying offers and negotiate a new deal for 2017-18, thus eliminating much of the guesswork when it comes to expansion. So while none of Buffalo’s goaltenders are signed through next season, they’re in much better shape than Calgary or Philadelphia, for example.
The Sabres are hardly the only team without a precise roadmap in goal in terms of the upcoming expansion draft. Philly and Calgary both have a pair of UFAs to decide on and a host of teams have goalies with NMCs but no signed backups who can be exposed. Chicago, Columbus, Nashville, New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Washington all either have starters with an NMC or an obvious choice as to who they’ll protect. However, each has work to do in order to lock in a goalie who will be eligible to be exposed. Many of these teams will simply need to qualify their RFAs, so the work for many will be simple.
Scenarios such as these have led some teams to move early in the free agent or trade market. Deals to extend Alex Stalock in Minnesota or Dustin Tokarski in Anaheim were done with the explicit purpose of dangling each goaltender come this summer’s expansion draft. There has been some question over what the Sabres should do in this regard but the answer is simply nothing. While the Sabres don’t yet have their goalies locked in for the draft and beyond, they’re in a position to stand pat and likely come away with the same depth chart they will have entering the expansion draft.
We already know it’s a virtual lock that both Lehner and Ullmark will receive qualifying offers and it’s not out of the question for Murray to extend Nilsson for another year either. Even if Nilsson walks, Murray will meet the league standard by qualifying Lehner and Ullmark and leaving one (likely Ullmark) exposed during the draft. While there is some risk that the Golden Knights could claim Ullmark, it’s a far more calculated risk for the Sabres to expose him than jumping through hoops to try to acquire one of the few surplus backups around the league as it wouldn’t save Ullmark from being exposed.
There isn’t an exact breakdown for how unqualified RFAs are to be treated for the expansion draft but if it’s anything like unsigned UFAs, they’ll be eligible to be selected by Vegas all the same, it will just be up to George McPhee to get those players signed ahead of July 1. So simply leaving Ullmark – or Lehner for that matter – unqualified wouldn’t provide the necessary loop hole to keep the goaltending depth chart intact. That is assuming that RFAs will be treated in the same manner as UFAs in the expansion draft
For academic purposes, let’s assume the Sabres go out and acquire another backup goalie who still has term for next season as an expansion sacrifice. The list of goalies who not only meet the league’s requirements but also play for a team which has the ability to lose an expansion eligible goalie is quite short. This would leave the Sabres with the likes of Anton Khudobin, Jack Campbell or Andrew Hammond who could each be acquired for a late or conditional draft pick. All this does for Murray and the Sabres is add another body to the eligible netminders Buffalo will expose. In a perfect world Murray could conceivably wait on qualifying Ullmark until after the draft but as noted above, it’s likely that Vegas would still be free to select him anyway.
The only other benefit here is if the organization has determined Ullmark deserves to start seeing regular time in the NHL and needs to make room by allowing Nilsson to walk, a scenario that probably isn’t all that unlikely. Should that be the case, whomever the Sabres acquire could be used in tandem at the AHL level to help support Cal Petersen for next season, should Petersen sign his first professional contract this spring.
That’s a lot of hurdles to clear from a Sabres perspective and most of it is irrelevant since the only true benefit from the Sabres perspective would be adding a veteran for use in Rochester; something that’s just as easy to accomplish via free agency.
What should be encouraging for Sabres fans is that Vegas is likely going to be fairly spoiled for choice when it comes to goalies. So unless George McPhee really values Ullmark over most other prospects, the Sabres should be relatively safe when it comes to the young netminder. There are more than a few notable names likely to be available this summer through the expansion draft and even a couple more through free agency.
Pittsburgh sits in a precarious position when it comes to Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. Murray is the younger, more attractive long-term option who is likely to be protected from expansion, but Fleury holds a no movement clause, automatically protecting him. So either the Pens get Fleury to waive his NMC in order to move him at the deadline or expose him at the draft, or reach an agreement with Vegas to not select Murray through another trade prior to expansion. Detroit will be stuck choosing between Petr Mrazek and Jared Coreau all while Jimmy Howard is already likely be exposed to the expansion draft. The Isles will almost certainly expose Jaroslav Halak and then there are pending unrestricted free agents Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, Steve Mason, Michal Neuvirth, Ben Bishop, Ryan Miller and Ondrej Pavelec.
Ottawa is also likely to face a unique scenario as Mike Condon is reported to be close to nearing an extension while Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond are both already expansion eligible. Assuming Condon is signed, he’d likely be Ottawa’s choice for protection and while another backdoor agreement could be reached to not select Anderson – especially considering the news of his wife’s battle with cancer – the veteran netminder may also be available for the Golden Knights to ponder.
The notable names don’t end there. Either Cam Ward or Eddie Lack will be exposed by the Hurricanes, Semyon Varlamov isn’t a sure bet as the Avs are staring a rebuild in the face, Dallas’s goalie carousel is well documented while Malcom Subban, James Reimer, Antti Raanta and Philipp Grubauer are all but shoo-ins to be exposed.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which path McPhee will take come summertime. He could really hone in on a win-now mindset and grab players like Fleury, Halak or Howard who would step in and start day one while goalies like Grubauer or Raanta would provide a high-quality backup with the ability to step in as a starter in the near future. There’s also a chance that McPhee attempts to find his starter in free agency by chasing Bishop, Darling or Elliott and leaves expansion for filling his pipeline.
Unless Ullmark is adored by McPhee and Vegas goalie coach David Prior, I think he’s probably at least the sixth most notable prospect (maybe even lower) likely to be exposed. So even if McPhee opts to stay young in the expansion draft, having the likes of Subban, Coreau, Copley and Berube floating around ought to give Sabres fans some relief. Add young backups and current starters to the mix and Ullmark’s name moves even further down the list.
If I was in McPhee’s shoes I’d likely take a pair of youngsters and one veteran in the expansion draft with an eye on signing a second NHL veteran as a free agent. My picks would include players like Berube, Raanta or Grubauer who are young but are showing signs that they may deserve more time. I’d then grab Copley and either Coreau, Subban or Berube with my second two selections knowing that there would be room for them to grow into the team’s goalie of the future. This would all be done with an eye on Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott or even Ryan Miller in free agency to lock down the current starting job for at least the next couple of seasons.
This all points to Ullmark being safe from the threat of the expansion draft and keeps the Sabres goaltending pipeline intact heading into the offseason, giving Tim Murray one less thing he’ll need to address as he rebuilds the Sabres.